1 December 2009

Scientist Spotlight: Greg Boebinger

A far-reaching interview with the lab's director.

By Amy Mast

Greg Boebinger was 9, sitting in the back seat as the family drove to New England for vacation. After touring the sights of Boston and crossing the Harvard Bridge to Cambridge, the car passed a sign for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his dad said, "That's the toughest university in the country." And in the backseat, Greg thought he'd try and go there someday.

Boebinger at work on an experiment.Boebinger at work on an experiment.Pretty decisive for a 9-year-old, but not surprising considering that same kid had already met the girl he would marry. That assurance, combined with an ability to get results, buoyed him to be tapped to run the Magnet Lab at 44, less than two decades out of grad school. Today, Magnet Lab researchers and its international user community are advancing on many fronts in magnet technology and high-field research.

You can tell a lot about a person by the descriptive words he uses, and a few crop up over and over when Boebinger speaks at length about the lab: Spectacular. Ambitious. Fantastic. Aggressive. He wants the lab's every project to be all of these things, and it shows, both in the lab's growth over the past five years and in the scope of its plans.

Longtime colleague and friend Al Migliori calls Boebinger "energetic, honest and extremely intelligent" as a leader and a "wild man" as a scientist – a pairing that suits Boebinger's dual role as a leader and a researcher.

This dual role will be challenged more and more as Boebinger spearheads appeals for several ambitious new projects while trying to maintain the lab's leadership role in an ever more competitive field of international research.

Engineer, philosopher, physicist

After high-school graduation, Boebinger, one of four sons of an Indianapolis minister and an elementary school teacher, headed to Purdue University and took up an electrical engineering major, just like his older brother. Once he got there and confronted the prospect of being an electrical engineer as a profession, however, his enthusiasm dimmed, and he added a philosophy major to his plans.

By 1979, his older brother was an electrical engineer at IBM in Tucson, Arizona, and Boebinger spent the summer working with him. While he was there he visited Kitt Peak and was fascinated by the studies at the famous National Optical Astronomy Observatory. He realized that astronomy and engineering were powered by a common field of study, physics, which interested him more than anything before. He added a third major.

During his later years at Purdue, his favorite physics professor urged him to apply to top-notch physics graduate programs, while his favorite electrical engineering professor warned that there were better careers to be found in engineering. Unsure, Boebinger toured several physics departments and met the director of the MIT Francis Bitter National Magnet Laboratory, Peter Wolff.

"He was an absolutely spectacular personality, representing a fantastically dynamic laboratory, and it was all located at MIT, which looking back had been part of my imagination for so long," Boebinger said.

Bound for MIT at his Purdue graduation, he posed for photographs with three tassels – one for electrical engineering, one for philosophy, and one for physics – dangling from his mortarboard.

At the forefront of new physics

After marrying his wife Karen – the lass he'd spied at 9 and started dating in high school – Boebinger deferred admission to MIT. The young couple traveled to Cambridge University in England, where he spent a year as a Winston Churchill Foundation Fellow doing research on organic superconductors. "It was like a yearlong honeymoon, without any money or heat," said Boebinger.

Boebinger (with beard) in 1984, at the end of his first magnet run of his career.Boebinger (with beard) in 1984, at the end of his first magnet run of his career. The group at MIT set a new record for peak magnetic field and low temperature. Front row: Horst Stormer (holding sign) and Dan Tsui. Back row, left to right: Al Chang (then Tsui's postdoc, now a physics professor at Duke University), visiting scientist Peter Berglund and Boebinger.Settling in at MIT, Boebinger was introduced to magnet science just as the then-fledgling field was being shaken up by the discovery of the fractional quantum Hall effect. The effect is a still-studied phenomenon in which, when a specific magnetic field is applied, special resistance-free electrically conducting states occur for ultra-thin sheets of semiconductors.

Horst Stormer of Bell Labs and Dan Tsui of Princeton University regularly visited the MIT magnet lab. They began to realize that they might need a graduate student to keep the magnet lab fires burning and further advance the lab's increasingly sophisticated equipment. Boebinger needed a thesis adviser. At the beginning of his second year at MIT, he got a call from the MIT magnet lab director Wolff: "Horst Stormer and Dan Tsui want to interview you right now."

Boebinger ran the half-mile to the magnet lab, arriving nervous and sweaty, ready to be grilled. Tsui smiled and said, "So, you're joining our lab."

With that, Boebinger began working with a team whose research would result in Nobel Prizes for both its leaders, and whose work would heavily influence the direction and ambition of his own. Boebinger soon fell in comfortably with the group.

Stormer, now retired from Columbia University, wrote of Boebinger's role on the team:

"These were the early days of the fractional quantum Hall effect and many late evening runs were devoted to finding and characterizing new fractions. Hundreds of resistance traces were recorded with colorful ink on shiny millimeter paper around the roaring magnets. While necessary for progress, it wasn't always the most exciting work. To liven up the drudgery and stay awake, the group fell into silly Monty Python songs crowned by Greg's narration of the latest "stupid pet trick" from the David Letterman show, to bellowing laughter from his audience. It all kept us going, and it established Greg as the great storyteller who knew what mattered to get first-rate results – tenacity and a good sense of humor to make it through."

Joining the 'neural network'

Having established a relationship with Stormer and Tsui and completed a graduate thesis he was proud of, Boebinger headed back to Europe with Karen for a one-year postdoc in Paris – a year Boebinger described wryly as more Paris than postdoc.

When the year ended, Boebinger accepted a position at Bell Labs, a laboratory that he had admired since his first days as an undergraduate electrical engineering student.

Bell Labs, in those years a subsidiary of AT&T, was a nexus of research and discovery. Historically the premier research center of its kind in the world, it is known for the development of key technologies such as the transistor, the laser, wireless networking, and important computer operating systems. For Boebinger, who shied away from the competitive grant-based world of academic physics but thrived on intellectual competition, it was a dream job.

"It was so appealing to go to a place like Bell Labs where you are part of a bigger neural network – in fact, that's how they describe it. If you isolate yourself in your own lab and you do great things, that's spectacular but you should probably not be at Bell Labs," said Boebinger. "What they wanted was someone who was also out in the hallways, talking and arguing and contributing to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. And as long as you were arguing the science, there was no hierarchy."

At Bell Labs, Boebinger built a pulsed magnet lab with his technician Al Passner and enjoyed the exhilarating, combative and fraternal environment the research institute was famous for. It was there that he honed his communication style.

"One thing I get from my father is a gregarious personality that likes to stand at the pulpit and perform. There's a certain drama, there's a certain delivery, and I think he was even more fearless than I am when it comes to dealing with people. It worked make people laugh or to have an ability to hold your own in hand-to-hand combat – I mean debate," said Boebinger.

After eight years of downsizing at Bell Labs, he started to realize that the intensity was taking its toll, but he would stay almost three more before he found an opportunity he couldn't turn down. "It wasn't until after I left that I realized how rarely I slept through the night," he said.

A dream is realized

Even as a grad student, Boebinger had thought about one day running the Francis Bitter Magnet Lab at MIT.

Boebinger and family in 1998.Boebinger and family in 1998, shortly after their move to Los Alamos."I was among the people who, as a user at MIT, thought the decision to move the Magnet Lab to Tallahassee was a disaster," said Boebinger. "At the time, the FSU/UF/LANL consortium was an initiative with no infrastructure and very little expertise," he said. But by the time he was offered the job to run the new Magnet Lab's Pulsed Field Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1998, he had seen the new Magnet Lab become a huge success, with promise for even more.

Boebinger wrestled with the decision, but made up his mind after a conversation with Doug Scalapino, a theoretical physicist at UC Santa Barbara.

"He said, 'What if you turn down the job offer and they give it to someone else and that person does a terrible job and the thing just collapses?' I told him that I'd feel terrible. Then Doug asked, 'What if you turn down the job offer, they give it to someone else and that person does an absolutely spectacular job?' And I said 'Well, I'd feel even worse.' At which point Doug concluded, 'Then you have no choice. You have to take that job.'

"How could I argue with that kind of analysis? In fact, it's an analysis I've applied several times since then."

Boebinger was eager to "mix a little bit of Bell Labs" into the magnet program at Los Alamos, a process that began even before his first day, as he planned a workspace floor plan that he felt would encourage the exchange of ideas and, hence, increase scientific productivity. Under his five-year watch, the Magnet Lab's pulsed magnet user program quadrupled the number of scientific publications, an accomplishment Boebinger attributes to increased productivity among existing staff, new hires that energized the team, and grants that substantially pumped up the budget.

Boebinger also points to a great relationship with his boss, Magnet Lab Director Jack Crow, as a key to his success at LANL. "My relationship with Jack was spectacular. At Los Alamos, I think he liked what I was doing, so he was pretty hands-off. When I needed help, he was there – with advice and the funds needed to launch the 100 tesla magnet project," he said.

A new challenge

Boebinger's success at Los Alamos did not go unnoticed. In 2004 he was invited to run the Magnet Lab, only a few short months before founding director Jack Crow passed away. As the staff mourned Crow's passing and considered his legacy, Boebinger was tasked with figuring out how to put his own stamp on a research institution that literally wouldn't be there without his predecessor.

Though he says he was at first acutely aware of his newness, Boebinger settled in quickly, and he says he has learned a lot from balancing his own research with guiding the direction of the lab.

"As far as I'm concerned, managing scientists is a scientific experiment in itself," he said.

Managing scientists, Boebinger thinks, requires a lighter touch than is used in a traditional business model. "With the best scientists and engineers, you want to provide the environment and, occasionally, even the goals, and then you need to get out of the way."

"There are so many ways to manage scientists incorrectly," he said. "In the private sector, it's increasingly become a creative job without a creative corporate structure, and it's getting worse. In the private sector as well as in academia, scientific productivity in the U.S. is being seriously hamstrung by the number of nonscientific chores that scientists are forced to address."

In addition to managing the lab's principal investigators, Boebinger supervises graduate students who assist him in his own research. He's quick to point out that he wishes he had more time with them and that his Magnet Lab collaborators at Los Alamos have pitched in to help.

Scott Riggs, an FSU grad and now one of Boebinger's graduate students, decided to stay at FSU for grad school after hearing Boebinger speak.

"Greg's strength – and what he's always there for – is to go through the data, help you understand, and guide you as you write your paper. And he still has the same passion for that process of discovery as we graduate students," said Riggs.

Setting an ambitious agenda

The view from the director's office hasn't slowed the ambition Boebinger showed in the high-pressure hallways at Bell Labs. Ask him what one improvement he'd most like to see at the Magnet Lab and his answer is immediate: "Substantially improve the signal-to-noise ratio for our users."

Boebinger at the MagLab's 2009 Open House.Boebinger at the MagLab's 2009 Open House.Signal-to-noise ratio describes the quality of data you get from an experiment. "Signal" is the information a researcher is trying to receive, and "noise" refers to the electrical or other interference that degrades the quality of the data. Doing research with instruments that don't filter out unwanted noise is like listening to a radio news story filled with static; you may not be able to understand anything. Or you may get the gist of what the story's about, but you won't know the details. And in science, the details matter a great deal. In developing techniques to improve the signal-to-noise ratio, Magnet Lab scientists are enabling experiments that match the quality of our magnets.

"Better experimental techniques plus bigger magnets equals scientific capabilities worth traveling around the globe to use," said Boebinger.

In the next decade, Boebinger's aiming to have a couple of series connected hybrid magnets up and running. Though startup costs are steep, these magnets have the potential to simultaneously revolutionize research quality and quantity because they use much less energy to operate. One such magnet is already being built thanks to an $11.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Eventually, Boebinger would like to see a hybrid magnet capable of reaching 60 tesla and pulse magnets that reach past 100 tesla. He's also betting on high-temperature superconducting magnets that have revolutionized magnetic resonance, including MRIs.

He's also advocating for the placement of a free electron laser at the main Tallahassee campus of Magnet Lab – a project dubbed Big Light. It's an initiative comparable in audacity to the construction of the Magnet Lab itself. The laser would stretch half the distance of a football field and further increase the scientific impact of the Magnet Lab's unique magnets.

Though the project cost is measured in the "tens of millions," Boebinger argues that it's critically important that the U.S. lead in terahertz research, because central questions in energy, security, and fundamental science are best studied in this little-explored regime. "Because of the infrastructure and expertise we already have in place, if we're going to build it anywhere in the country, there's a good argument it should be built here, where Big Light would be the laser best designed to match the energies provided by our big magnets," Boebinger said.

'We want to be the best'

The success of the Magnet Lab's user programs, Boebinger says, has provided an impetus to increase funding for other nations to step up their own magnet research and facilities. "In Europe, there are now four labs that are firing on all cylinders and represent serious and exciting competition," he said.

"It is clear that Europe in particular, plus Japan and China, are now investing tens of millions of dollars to advance their own magnet capabilities," said Boebinger, who recently visited the leading European laboratories, as well as the sites for two Chinese labs under construction.

The increased international competition and the exchanges of scientific and technical ideas that result do put pressure on the Magnet Lab to protect its reputation as the world leader. "Real competition is hugely important to stimulate research. So everybody wins in the end," Boebinger explained, adding, "Of course, we still want to be the best."